Ethical Choices in Writing
As a writer, one controls the words that appear on the paper or the computer screen in front of the reader. Creative writing may be viewed as an art form and expression of self, or it may also be considered a vessel of communication between the author/writer and the reader, with an intended message. Many times writers believe their written words correctly convey their intentions. However, as Bazerman cautions, “ Awareness that meaning is not transparently available in written words may have the paradoxical effect of increasing our commitment to words as we mature as users of written language. As writers we may work on the words with greater care and awareness of the needs of readers so as to share our expressions of meaning as best as we can with the limited resources of written language” (23). John Duffy brings up a good point describing the connection as, “… an activity that involves ethical choices that arise from the relationship of writer and reader” (31). Not only does the writer have influence via persuasive content, but ultimately, their words can have an impact on readers and their lives.
There are several ethical questions that a writer must consider before sharing written works. Some examples of these types of questions are, “What are my obligations to my readers? What effects will my words have upon others, upon my community? (Duffy 31). What obligations follow from my words? What are the consequences?” (Duffy 32). These types of questions are similar to those a moral philosopher would ask concerning whether something is ethical, such as “How should I treat others?” (Shafer-Landau).
Ultimately, when a writer composes a script, whether it be a local reporter typing a piece for the morning newspaper, or a well-known food critic writing an opinion based article about the newest restaurant in town, their words will be read, deciphered, and can have a lasting effect on the community and livelihood of individuals. Could you imagine how detrimental a negative and unprofessional food critique would be for the new restaurant in a small town?
To circumvent some of the ethical issues that would naturally occur in these types of journalism, the Association of Food Journalists’ mission statement and code of ethics guide states, “Our primary responsibility is to share news, ideas, and opinions as fairly, accurately, completely, independently, and honestly as possible.” While guidelines are provided, the Association of Food Journalists’ website specifically states three general questions that should always be considered before a written critique is published: “Am I being fair and rigorous in my reporting process? Am I being honest to my sources, editors and readers about the circumstances surrounding the production and publication of this piece? Am I putting the public’s needs first, or am I making this decision with an eye toward personal or professional gain?”
Aidan White, the director of Ethical Journalism Network, states in this interview (also shown below), there are over four hundred codes of conduct from around the world covering various aspects of journalism. However, he identifies the top five key factors in ethical journalism as: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity, and accountability (Ethical Journalism Network, 2015).
Unfortunately, not all writers will follow generally accepted ethical codes of conduct. Duffy describes this concept: “Conversely, an informational or persuasive text that is unclear, inaccurate, or deliberately deceptive suggests a different attitude toward readers: one that is at best careless, at worst contemptuous” (32).
Writers that don’t connect with a humanitarian consciousness write however they want, without regard to any ethical implications to their readers. As a writer myself, I consider it an author’s obligation to contemplate the social impact of my words and to carefully examine my audience for each written piece. The editors of the classroom edition Naming What We Know, summarize the paradigm perfectly when they suggest, “… to be considered successful, all writers must learn to study expectations for writing within specific contexts and participate in those to some degree” (Adler-Kassner and Wardle, 16). However, as Aidan White explains in a 2015 interview (shown below), there is a significant difference between free expression and journalism.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition. Utah State University Press, 2016.
Altmann, Gerd. Pixabay. 2019, pixabay.com/photos/hands-earth-next-generation-4086847/
“Association of Food Journalists Code of Ethics.” Association of Food Journalists. www.afjonline.com/ethics. Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.
Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 23.
Duffy, John. “Writing Involves Making Ethical Choices.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 31-32.
Shafer-Landau, Russ, ed. 2007. Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell.
White, Aidan. “The 5 Core Values of Journalism.” YouTube, uploaded 19 February 2015, www.youtu.be/uNidQHk5SZs.
White, Aidan. “The Difference Between Free Expression and Journalism.” YouTube, uploaded 18 February 2015, youtu.be/499FWnBDveU.
Your ethical questions made me think. As someone who mainly writes fiction novels, and I know you do too, these questions made me think about who is writing. What do I mean who is writing? Well I write mainly in the first person, and although I, me, Miro, am the one writing the story, is it not also my character who is writing the story? So then who are the readers? Are they mine or are they my characters readers? It’s kind of weird, and maybe arbitrary, but it’s something to consider. Take Harry Potter, for example. J.K. Rowling’s books are in third person, so she’s writing a story for an audience. But if the books were written from 1st person, from Harry’s perspective or Ron’s or Hermione’s, would the audience be different? Who would they be writing to? Do we care? Does Rowling care?
Speaking of the ethics, what if your character wanted to intentionally deceive people, like Duffy says not to do? Maybe I’m going off on a crazy tangent, but it’s something that I often think about. You’re totally right though that it’s an “author’s obligation to contemplate the social impact of my words and to carefully examine my audience for each written piece.” Whether or not we are writing or someone is writing through us, we still need to be aware of the words. Even if they’re intentionally trying to deceive, I feel we must be able to back up “why” we’re writing what we are writing.